I was born and raised in Fort Worth, and while daddy was a kind and hard-working Texan himself, it was my mother and grandmother — two strong-willed women from Germany — who had the primary influence on my formative years.
My mother and grandmother, “Mutti” and “Oma” respectively, arrived in Texas in 1956 to start a new life following the war. Mutti was 4 years old, and quickly learned English and lost her accent completely.
Oma, on the other hand, would go on to learn perfect English as well, but she would forever keep that adorable German accent. Unless she was angry. Then her accent went from delightful to outright terrifying.
But having such worldly influence around our dinner table wasn’t all peaches and cream. Especially between kindergarten and third grade, when conversations with my schoolmates grew uncomfortably awkward after I would accidentally reveal the strange things I had been learning at home. Like discussing nursery rhymes or children’s literature during recess.
Dr. Seuss might have had a German name, but he wasn’t in Oma’s bedtime reading repertoire. Instead, she read me stories from the German classic Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman. Take a moment and Google that if you dare. It’s a book of children’s stories, each resulting in catastrophic penalties for bad behavior.
Like having one’s thumbs cut off by the giant Scissorman for the heinous crime of sucking them, dying of hunger a few days after refusing to eat your soup, or being swept away and forever lost for carrying an umbrella during a storm.
Other revelations of my home life left my childhood friends equally traumatized. Like having a number on your forehead, that only Mutti and Oma could see, when they suspected you of lying. Or the ratmouse, a colossal anthropomorphic rodent that lurked in the darkness of your closet or under your bed, just waiting for permission to eat disobedient children.
The ratmouse was instrumental in driving good behavior. And while all of this sounds disturbing enough, the tradition that really left a mark was Oma’s endearing nickname for me: Der Bubi, which means the little boy. Which is just precious.
Until your American friends hear it. And that is because it is pronounced Boo’Bee. Oh, the endless fun we had with that one on the playground.
For the duration of my childhood, Oma would always tell stories about Germany and how beautiful it was. She would talk about her strict but loving parents, her hometown, surviving during the war as a teenage girl, her many brothers and sisters, and the cold, rainy weather. The latter being the most intriguing to me during the hot and humid Texas summers. And speaking of the weather, it is the middle of June and I am wearing a light sweater as I write this piece from my apartment in western Germany.
As a first-generation American, my being here in Germany represents a link to the American story; the story of a nation of immigrants. But it is also a personal connection to my family’s past and a constant reminder of the goodness with which Oma surrounded me.
My favorite foods growing up, the goodies she would make for me daily in her kitchen, are available on every street corner here. But once you hit your forties, you just can’t eat bratwurst and spätzle and fresh pretzels with the same impunity one might express with a younger man’s metabolic rate.
In that sense, Germany is just one gigantic carb and unless I want to exponentially increase the distance of my daily jog, I have to exercise a great deal of self-control.
Gerri Lyn and I have seen the house in Heidelberg where Oma was born and Mutti was initially raised. I’ve seen the mountains and war memorials, felt the weather, and experienced the kindness and generosity of the people here. Every day I am thankful that Oma taught me the German language and shared with me those stories of her childhood. It makes being here all the more meaningful, but I would give anything if she were still alive to see what I am doing these days. And to hear her call me Der Bubi just one more time.
This is the first installment of a bi-monthly column on the experiences of an American Expat in Europe. Christopher Combest and his wife, Gerri Lyn (née Webb), maintain a permanent home at The Retreat in Cleburne, as well as an apartment in Idar Oberstein, Germany. In addition to his art and writing, Combest is an adjunct instructor at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.